The implausibility of reality

Seems to describe my state of mind at the moment. I am trying to deal with a computer trashed by a virus. So something short and sweet to go on with.

I am currently reading Antonio Damasio‘s Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Chapter two starts with this:

Mark Twain thought the big difference between fiction and reality was that fiction had to be believable. Reality could afford to be implausible, but fiction could not.”

I like it.

While we often say facts are strange than fiction I think this quote also encompasses the idea that reality is counter-intuitive. Discovering the truth about reality doesn’t come easily because we have evolved to make subjective decisions which are often not correct, although they may have been adaptive.

It took humanity thousands of years to develop procedures which give us a reliable picture of reality. These methods are most obviously embodied in modern science. And these methods include requirements of evidence and checking against reality.

So, fiction has to be believable because there is no way of checking the story. But scientific knowledge can be intuitively implausible – because we can check against reality. Its what confirms our ideas for us – and keeps us honest.

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25 responses to “The implausibility of reality

  1. Mr Twain was a smart man. People won’t continue to read the story if they don’t feel it’s real.

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  2. No virus, no worms, 10 years now and I’m 77 and Linux is free and not to be scared of. Come on you of scientific bent, have a look🙂

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  3. “idea that reality is counter-intuitive”
    Great point Ken and something that got slapped out of me – being someone who formerly referred to “common-sense” all too often.
    To rely on the idea of common-sense is to be a poor scientist – we are inherently bias creatures and have to forgo our perceived ideas to effectively investigate reality.

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  4. Credo quia absurdum?

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  5. To rely on the idea of common-sense is to be a poor scientist – we are inherently bias creatures and have to forgo our perceived ideas to effectively investigate reality.

    Well said.
    Common Sense Is Worthless in Science

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  6. Come off it Max – I am talking about science not religion.

    “More like I accept because of the evidence.”

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  7. Just reminded me of the non-intuitive nature of a lot of religion. Interesting parallels.

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  8. Except for checking against reality, eh!

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  9. A whole ‘nother debate. But the fact that they are both counter intuitive is interesting to me.

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  10. Pascal Boyer describes the supernatural agents of religion as minimally counterintuitive. As having many of the expected characteristics of normal agents but some aspect different which makes them memorable and more likely to be passed on through mythology.

    When you see it this way religious stories are not very counterintuitive. They provide easily remembered explanations. (I am talking about lay understanding or native religion – not the high faluting theological explanations which are generally ignored by the faithful anyway).

    In contrast in humanity’s investigation of reality we come across extreme counterintuitiveness. Much of the detail of currently accepted science would be seen as ridiculous, not just supernatural, if it weren’t for evidence and validation against reality.

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  11. “I am talking about lay understanding or native religion – not the high faluting theological explanations which are generally ignored by the faithful anyway”

    Fair enough. As long as what you are comparing it to is the lay understanding or science – not the high faluting expert explanations which are generally ignored by the general population anyway.

    Compare apples with apples.

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  12. In other words you are comparing “common sense” religious views with “not common sense” scientific views. Can you spot the subtle confound error?

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  13. I am commenting more than comparing. However I think the person in the street (believer) probably has a fairly common sense intuitive understanding of their beliefs. Probably not well thought out. These level of beliefs probably are comforting and they could well be threatened when theologians get into their abstractions. In many cases they just tell them to go away. God beliefs are open to everone – you dont have to be an academic or specialist and we are suspicious of those prople anyway. Look how church members have reacted to many theologians and rekigious leaders who have tried to produce a more abstract belief system.

    I think this creates s phenomenon where the theologian is afraid to communicate their ideas to the flock (so stick with the natural religious mythology and call it metaphorical) and the flock don’t want to hear the abstractions anyway so are happy to hear the myths instead. A useful if deceptive symbiosis.

    In the case of scientific ideas I think some people may insist on a dole story. But I think there is a more general acceptance of expert roles. We know the science works. We can use the Internet xnd computers but our understanding of quantum mechanics is naive. We are happy to leave that understanding to the experts.

    I think there is a difference if attitudes. We generally accept experts and leave abstractions to them in the case of science and technology. When it comes to beliefs and ideology we see this as more a matter of opinion and my opinion is as good as anyone else. We don’t hand over our ideological beliefs to “experts”.

    Perhaps this just reflects an attitude that objective reality provides a confidence that experts can be trusted (their skills being tested against objective reality). But in the case of belief reality just isn’t inolved. We are all our own experts and because beliefs are not tested against reality we don’t trust the skill of others.

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  14. I am commenting more than comparing. However I think the person in the street (layman) probably has a fairly common sense intuitive understanding of their scientific understanding. Probably not well thought out. These level of understanding probably are comforting and they could well be threatened when scientists get into their abstractions. In many cases they just tell them to go away. Scientific beliefs are open to everone – you dont have to be an academic or specialist and we are suspicious of those prople anyway. Look how laymen have reacted to many scientists who have tried to produce a more abstract belief system.

    I think this creates s phenomenon where the scientist is afraid to communicate their ideas to the layfolk and the layfolk don’t want to hear the abstractions anyway so are happy to hear the intuative ideas instead. A useful if deceptive symbiosis.

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  15. And, Max, the elephant in the room is the relationship to reality. The fact that science is built on evidence and validation against reality provides immense confidence, even for the most counter intuitive ideas.

    In contrast religion is in the same place as fiction. Because there is no honest interaction with reality it’s adherents retain their confidence only when ideas are relatively intuitive.

    People can have confidence in science even when the ideas are so implausible. One can’t build that confidence on faith – it requires honest interaction with reality.

    Evidence and validation. This is he basis of the epistemological conflict between science and religion. It can’t be avoided.

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  16. “And, Max, the elephant in the room is the relationship to reality.”

    Like I said – whole another debate for another time. Been there – done that remember?

    My point here was that like a lot of scientific theories, many religious doctrines are counter intuitive and go against our every day experience or “common sense”

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  17. Comparing “scientific theories” with “religious doctrines” is like comparing oranges and granny apples. And just a pointless

    Because you can’t ignore the different epistemologies.

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  18. Again you miss the point Ken (maybe deliberately as i don’t think you are really that stupid?)

    Let me spell it out in baby steps for you:

    Lets split the sorts of knowledge/theories/beliefs into four categories:

    (1) Niave commonsense views about science
    (2) counterintuative views about science which are held by experts
    (3) Niave commonsense views about god/religion
    (4) counterintuaive views about god/religion help by the experts.

    You are wishing to compare (2) with (3) which differs in two ways – ie the difference could be due to the subject matter or the nature of the belifs.

    Now I suspect you will come back with something dull like “Duh! But there are no experts in religion everyone’s opinion in that area is equally valid” – but don’t forget that those who embrace pseudoscinces like astrology/crystal healing etc. (ie ignorant fools) say the same thing about scientific knowledge. Often the completely uneducated layman does not have the tools with which to make these sort of claims. Sadly I think this will be your response anyway. But surprise me and actually address the issues I raise rather than going into an auto-response. It would really make my day.

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  19. “Comparing “scientific theories” with “religious doctrines” is like comparing oranges and granny apples. And just a pointless”

    …..then why do you keep comparing them I wonder….

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  20. No, I am not comparing 2 with 3 at all. I don’t know what gives you that idea.

    You yourself compared “theories” with “doctrine”, not me.

    But 2 and 4 are epistemological different – you have to admit that. Science has theories (not views about science). These are derived from interaction with reality and validated against reality. Provisional knowledge which changes as this interaction deepens.

    Religion has nothing liken that.

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  21. Contrasting, Max, contrasting.

    After all there are some people who run around claiming that theological ideas are based on evidence and tested or validated against reality!

    Mind you they get stumped when asked for examples.

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  22. “Religion has nothing liken that.”

    Easy to make these broad sweeping claims. But as you know I reject this claim – and so the difference imagine is not so great.

    “Mind you they get stumped when asked for examples.”

    As you well know you have been given many examples – but lets not open that debate again as it went nowhere ultimately.

    What gives me the idea that you ARE comparing (2) and (3) is that this is what you did! But I am glad to have clarified the situation so that you can make clearer distinctions in future. Comparisons between (1) and (3) are interesting: “there is a ghost in my cupboard making an odd noise” “if I play enough scratchy cards I am bound to win eventually” both stem from a “common-sense” understanding of the world.

    Comparisons between (2) and (4) are equally interesting as in both cases one is confronted with a claim that goes directly against their everyday intuative understanding of the world. This is the issue that I am interested in – the point you keep raising about different epistemologys (though interesting) is a side track.

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  23. The different epistemologies are important. Its tied up with Mark Twain’s comment: “Reality could afford to be implausible, but fiction could not”

    Sounds like your argument may be with Twain, not me.

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  24. I am not arguing with you! I am just trying to say that what I am interested in is not what you are concentrating on – but that is OK!

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  25. I am not arguing with you! I am just trying to say that what I am interested in is not what you are concentrating on – but that is OK!

    And actually your Twain quote makes my point exactly.
    “Reality could afford to be implausible, but fiction could not”

    Now – if religious stories are inherently implausible to their desired audience (like the story of a Messiah who is killed, or a God who is crucified would be to a Jewish audience) then they fit on the reality side of Twain’s formula… because as he says fiction cannot afford to be implausible. So an interesting parallel does exist. You are allowed to find things interesting without agreeing with them you know?

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